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Friday, May 31, 2013

MIT report highlights the peril of Manchester airport’s dependence on Southwest Airlines

MANCHESTER – If you’re Manchester airport, there’s a very unpleasant sentence in a new report from MIT researchers about the nations’s air traffic trends:

“(Southwest Airlines’s) recent attempts at capacity discipline should be worrying to smaller airports … whose previous growth was fueled largely by new Southwest service.” ...

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MANCHESTER – If you’re Manchester airport, there’s a very unpleasant sentence in a new report from MIT researchers about the nations’s air traffic trends:

“(Southwest Airlines’s) recent attempts at capacity discipline should be worrying to smaller airports … whose previous growth was fueled largely by new Southwest service.”

Since “capacity discipline” is an aviation euphemism for cutting flights, the report titled “Trends and Market Forces Shaping Small Community Air Service in the United States” warns that if you live by Southwest you might die by it – or at least shrink by it.

Manchester-Boston Regional Airport has certainly been shrinking. According to the report from the MIT International Center for Air Transportation, the number of departures declined a whopping 41.2 percent in the period covering 2007-12.

That’s far worse than the average 18 percent shrinkage reported by similar-sized “small hub” airports. It’s also worse than regional competition: T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I., shrank 38 percent over that period and Portland, Maine’s airport shrank 18 percent.

Manchester-Boston has seen small signs of improvement this year: Delta added a daily flight to LaGuardia Airport in New York and U.S. Airways added flights to Washington-National and Charlotte, N.C.

But like many similar-sized airports, it is still beholden to Dallas-based Southwest.

That airline’s arrival here in 1998 kicked off a decade of huge growth at the state’s biggest airport, and Southwest still carries more than 50 percent of Manchester’s passenger traffic.

Southwest certainly isn’t leaving: In 2011, it signed a five-year agreement that includes the use of five gates and a set amount of terminal space at Manchester.

But it has been contracting since it started serving Logan Airport in Boston in 2010, ending a long practice of avoiding major metropolitan airports in favor of smaller hub airports. Since then, Southwest has trimmed service at New England airports like Manchester and T.F. Green, most painfully by dropping service from Manchester to Philadelphia in 2011.

Further, competition among six low-cost airlines at Logan has kept fares low there, erasing Manchester airport’s long advantage in ticket prices that began when Southwest Airlines arrived.

Southwest’s consolidation is part of a larger pattern in which the nation’s aviation industry, battered by price wars, post-9/11 security costs, higher fuel prices and the great recession, is combining airlines and routes, concentrating more on large airports like Logan while dropping routes between smaller airports.

That pattern may continue, the MIT report warns: “The nation’s small- and medium-sized airports have been disproportionally affected by these reductions in service, and recent airline behavior appears to signal a trend towards consolidation of service at the largest airports with fewer direct flights available from smaller airports.”

Manchester airport has some things going for it, of course, notably the new access bridge over the Merrimack River that cuts travel time from Nashua, making the long haul to Logan less attractive. Officials also hope it will spur industrial development around the airport, increasing business traffic.

What the airport would really like, however, is to lure JetBlue here. That ultra-low-cost carrier has been growing fast, increasing its flights by more than 21 percent from 2007-12, and started serving Providence’s Green Airport in 2012.

The airport also has been steaming for years about Boston Express a state-subsidized bus service that travels on I-93, providing easier access to Logan Airport. The routes were subsidized as part of the approval process for widening I-93.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@Telegraph_DaveB).